Small Groups Make a Big Difference
to the Community
Billy Graham was asked a few years ago, "If you were to pastor a large church in a large city, what would be your plan of action?" Everyone in the room sat with attention and pen in hand listening to what this spokesman of Christianity would say.
"The first thing I would do," he said, "is to get a small group of people, 8, 10, maybe up to 12, and I would bring them around me for a few hours each week. I would ask them to pay a price. It would cost them something in time and effort. It would also cost me something. During those years 1 would be with them, I would teach them everything that I knew.
"I would eventually have 8,10, or 12 lay pastors. I would equip and train them and then release them into the church body to each, in turn, find 8, 10, or 12 other people into whom they would pour their lives. I would continue that process until all of the people in the large church in the large city would be in a small group."
And then he said, "I believe Christ set that pattern."
During these weeks we have been exploring the subject, "Small Groups Make a Big Difference." Two weeks ago we saw how small groups made a big difference for Moses. Jethro advised him to break down that large crowd of people he was trying to serve into small groups. Lay pastors of tens and fifties and hundreds came around Moses and helped him do the pastoral ministry. Last Sunday we saw how small groups made a big difference in the early church. The needs of the people weren't being met. The Apostles called for a congregational meeting and they added seven lay pastors to the team. As a result, proper pastoral care was available for everyone including the widows.
Today, in Acts chapter 2, we will see how small groups made a big difference in how the church reached out to the community.
Let me say that I have been greatly helped in the preparation of these messages by teachings that I received from John Maxwell, pastor of the Skyline Wesleyan Church of San Diego, California.
I hope that my teaching to you can be as helpful as his has been to me.
Read Acts 2:41‑47.
This is the best description we have of the early church. In the Reformation our spiritual ancestors tried to get back to this model of the church. We are still trying to recreate it in our time and setting. I believe it is as close to what the Lord has in mind as we can get. I want you to notice eight things about this church. Notice in verse 41 that:
They Joined Together
There were 3000 people who were added to the church in one day. That is what I would consider to be a large membership class! What would we do at Calvary if only a tenth that many, 300 people, would want to join the church all at one time? Pastor Jeff and Pastor Ramiro and I would be busy visiting with people for weeks. We would need some help or all three of us would go to see Jesus in a pretty short time!
Let's scale that down to 30. If we are faithful, might God honor our invitations and our enthusiasm by giving us 30 new people this year?
The remarkable thing about the early church is that they had a pattern for nurturing 3000 new believers and bringing them into the body. This wasn't merely some Pentecostal high that would come and go. They immediately got busy teaching them and I believe small groups made a big difference in how they received them into the church.
They Learned Together Verse 42 says that they "devoted themselves to the Apostles' teaching." The word for "teaching" is a very active word. The new people didn't just sit there and listen. They went to the temple and learned together like we do in Sunday school or like we do in worship and then they went to small groups in the homes to flesh it out. In the temple they got the big picture. In the homes they figured out what that would mean for their lives. They got different ideas from each other. They saw different options and suddenly the teaching made sense for their lives.
Research done by Dale Galloway of New Hope Church in Portland indicates that people learn eight times faster when they dialogue an idea rather than merely hear it. In Sunday school lessons and in sermons we can teach great spiritual truth but we find that spiritual growth happens fastest in small groups. We all learn best when we learn together.
When new people come into the church, they have a lot to learn. Small groups make a big difference in how new people learn about God and the Christian faith.
They Had Fellowship Together
When they came together, they not only learned together‑verse 42 says that they also had fellowship. The real miracle of Pentecost was that people from every nation under heaven came together in a unified body. They shared together, ate together, and had fun together.
Relationships were of paramount importance. In the large group they nurtured their relationship with God, and in the small group they nurtured their relationships with each other. Small groups made a big difference in how both the members and the newcomers felt about the church. It was not a stuffy, legalistic place. It was a place of love and fellowship. It enjoyed the favor of all the people. Part of this was that:
They Ate Together Now that's a statement that is close to my heart! Every time I call for a meeting, Ardys already knows that it is going to involve food. Food does so much for a meeting!
Verse 42 says that they broke bread together in the temple, and verse 47 says they ate together in their homes. They were an eating church. Psychologists say that you can never really know a person until you have eaten with him or her. There is something that happens when we eat together.
When we were in Hong Kong a dozen years ago, we went to the Mennonite Church for Sunday morning worship. We had worship together, and then the whole congregation went across the street to an outside restaurant to have Sunday dinner together. They did that every Sunday. They had a great sense of fellowship. New people were continually coming into the fellowship.
When new people come to our fellowship, it is also important that we invite them to have food with us. Next Sunday if we have guests, let's invite them to the pot‑luck picnic. Bring plenty of food. It is a way to do evangelism!
But let me encourage you to do more than that. Let me encourage you to invite new people to your homes. Something happens when you eat together. Make it a goal to invite someone every month. If you can't invite them to your home, invite them to eat with you at McDonald's or another restaurant! Something of what happens in communion begins happening when we have even a simple hamburger together.
During this last year I tried to visit the dozen or so Bible study groups we have going in the church. I noticed that during the Bible study time or during prayer, we are pretty sober. But bring out the food, and everybody opens up. The early church had a good balance of Bible study and fellowship. We need the same. Eating together in small groups makes a big difference in how new people feel accepted in the church.
There is more here. Notice in verse 42 that:
They Prayed Together
There is something special that happens when we pray together. Prayer shows concern. It is wonderful when someone says, "I am praying for you." But there is something even more wonderful when that person prays "with" you.
Shoua Moua is a Laotian pastor in Los Angeles. He has led literally hundred of persons to Christ. I met him at the conference in Wichita. When I asked him how he does it, he simply said, "I pray with the people."
"What do you pray for?" I asked him.
"I pray for whatever they need," he said. "That speaks to them. They find out that the Lord meets their needs and they establish a relationship with him."
Evangelism isn't some strange thing that only specialized evangelists can do. It is doing for others what we generally do only for each other. As new people come to the church, let's be eager to pray with them. Home groups are a good place for that to happen. It's a place where we can hear each other out and then cast our burdens on the Lord.
The early church not only learned together. They not only fellowshipped and ate and prayed together.
They Experienced God Together
Verse 43 says, "Everyone was filled with awe." Many signs and wonders were taking place. Not the least of which was that they were meeting each other's needs.
I am sure that in their worship services at the temple they experienced God together. When you get 3,000 people together, you can sing and pray and get into touch with the transcendent, almighty God in very special ways; but it was also in the homes that they experienced God.
Take a look at church history, and you will see that every great spiritual movement has started with small groups. In the early church, the Christians were meeting in the homes and God was adding to their number daily those who were being saved. In the Protestant Reformation, the Anabaptists were meeting in small groups and growing by thousands. In the 1700s, John Wesley organized class meetings of ten people each, and the Great Awakening was the result. In the 1800s, there was a second Great Awakening when in a small college in Virginia small groups began to pray.
Later students gathered in what were called the "Haystack Prayer Meetings" and the great missionary movement was born.
Spiritual growth through small groups is continuing to happen in South America. It is happening in Africa. It is happening in Asia. It is happening here in North America among churches of every denomination. This summer when I was out East, I visited the Cornerstone Mennonite Church. Through small groups it has grown from zero to over 1,000 in a decade.
When Communism took over China, there were only about five million Christians in that large country. Thousands of missionaries had worked for a hundred years to bring it to that number. In 1950 it was all shut down. But those Christians didn't give up. They got into small groups and invited their friends. Now there are over 50 million Christians in China.
Everywhere you look, small groups are making a big difference in the way the church is doing outreach. Nobody knew that better than the early church. There is one more thing here:
They Ministered Together
Those who were sick were cared for. Those who were hungry were fed. Verse 45 says that "they gave to anyone as he had need." It appears that these early Christians cared for people as if they were helping Jesus himself. "I was hungry." Jesus said, "and you gave me something to eat. I was a stranger and you took me in, naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you took care of me and I was in prison and you came to visit me" (Matthew 25:35‑36).
Each of us can care for a few people. Ten is about the limit. None of us, not even a pastor, can truly and deeply care for more than ten people at a time. But when we all get into groups of ten, we can all care for each other. The result of all this is that:
They Grew Together
Verse 47 says, "The Lord was adding to the church daily those who were being saved." Why was this happening? I believe it was happening because they had a sense of community! They were experiencing community both in the temple and in the small groups. People liked what they saw. They "enjoyed the favor of all the people." Jesus had promised that if we "seek first the kingdom of God" then "all these other things will be yours as well." That is what the early church was experiencing.
(Insert information appropriate to your church.) Two weeks from today we will have a commissioning service for our small group leaders. We will invite them to come to the front with their spouses and we will dedicate them to the task of building Christian community. In small groups we will seek first the kingdom of God.
I will be available to everyone in the church. But in a special way I want to pour myself into these lay pastors. They will be the leaders often that Jethro advised. They will be the seven leaders of Acts 6 filled with the Spirit and wisdom. They will help us to be the kind of church that we see described in Acts chapter 2.
Each small group should be an open door to the community. I encourage you to literally pull an empty chair into your class or group and ask:
Who would we like to invite to fill this empty chair next week?
Letters and invitations to the community might bring new people to us, but those new people will not stay unless their needs are met. One of the greatest needs of any person is the need for at least two or three friends. If they are to have a lasting, meaningful experience, newcomers, like old‑timers, need to learn together, fellowship together, eat together, pray together, and minister together. If we experience God together in such ways, the Lord will add to the church weekly those who are being saved.
There is a great song that I love to sing. In it God says,
"For I'm building a people of power, and I'm making a people of praise that will move through this land by my Spirit and will glorify my precious name.